Looking back on her childhood in the small, conservative community of Johnstown, Colo., Cal Poly professor Gloria L. Velásquez came to a stark realization.
“I’d probably be dead if it weren’t for my writing, and I mean that literally,” said Velásquez, who recently published the young adult novel “Tommy Stands Tall.” “Writing saved my life.”
The daughter of Mexican-American farm workers, Velásquez grew up amid poverty, racism and family tragedy. Both her alcoholic father and soldier brother died young.
“When you come from an (area) where they had signs that said ‘No Mexicans allowed’ where you saw them mistreat your mother because she had an accent that’s what gave me my humanitarian beliefs,” she said.
It also impelled her to share her story.
“I always say, ‘When you’re born with nothing, you have everything,’ ” Velásquez said, “I’ve been given this voice. It’s a gift from God, and it took me a long time to realize that.”
Velásquez graduated from the University of Northern Colorado with a bachelor’s degree in 1978, earning her master’s and doctorate degrees in Spanish literature from Stanford University in the 1980s. “That gave me the global perspective that I needed,” said Velásquez, who has taught Spanish language and Chicano and Latin American literature at Cal Poly since 1985.
Velásquez, who was San Luis Obispo poet laureate in 2006, has published two books of poetry — 1997’s “I Used to Be a Superwoman” and 2005’s “Xicana on the Run” — as well as two albums, “Superwoman Chicana” and “Double Bubbleheads.” (The latter is a bilingual children’s album.)
But her most consistent creative outlet has been the Roosevelt High School series, published by Arte Público Press’s Piñata Books imprint. (The Houston, Texas, based-press bills itself as “the nation’s largest and most established publisher of contemporary and recovered literature by U.S. Hispanic authors.”)
According to Velásquez, she was inspired to write the series while on sabbatical from Cal Poly. Channel surfing, she came across a clip of comedian and talk show host Joan Rivers chatting with young adult author Judy Blume.
“As I sat there listening to the interview, it occurred to me that none of her characters were students of color,” Velásquez recalled. “I said, ‘Someone needs to write books that feature Chicanos (and) African-Americans, and I’m going to do it.’ ”
Intended for grade six and up, the Roosevelt High School series follows a multiracial group of friends in Laguna, a California town modeled after San Luis Obispo.
The first book in the series, 1994’s “Juanita Fights the School Board,” chronicles the title character’s battle against discrimination after she’s expelled from school for fighting.
Other characters have grappled with such serious issues as interracial dating (“Ankiza”), domestic violence (“Rina’s Family Secret”) and teen pregnancy (“Teen Angel”).
Velásquez said her strong stance on social justice stems from her involvement in the Chicano civil rights movement in California and Colorado. “I write because I want this to be a better world,” she said.
The ninth Roosevelt High School novel reunites readers with Tomás, or, Tommy, whose struggles with his sexual orientation were at the center of 1995’s “Tommy Stands Alone.” In “Tommy Stands Tall,” published in October, Tommy, now an openly gay senior who dreams of becoming a teacher, decides to start a gay-straight alliance on campus after a fellow student, Albert, is brutally beaten.
The book is split into two first-person narratives: those of Tommy and school counselor Sandra Martínez.
Velásquez said she felt compelled to share Tommy’s story because of the homophobia she has encountered in the Latino community. She created the character as a homage to her cousin Steve Joseph Quintana, who died of AIDS in 1996.
“What happens in Latino/Chicano culture is we don’t ostracize someone completely because they’re gay or lesbian,” she explained, but homosexuals aren’t embraced either. “It’s like we’re in denial. We still keep them as a part of the family, but we never talk about it.”
Velásquez acknowledged that Tommy’s story has proved controversial.
In fact, district officials in Longmont, Colo., banned “Tommy Stands Alone” just before Velásquez was scheduled to speak at a middle school there. “The local PFLAG (Parents, Friends and Family of Lesbians and Gays) found out and they started picketing the school,” the author recalled.
Velásquez said she doesn’t set out intending to write about a specific subject. Rather, she jots down ideas when they appear and revisits them later.
“People always ask me, ‘Where you do get your ideas from?’ ” said Velásquez, comparing inspiration to a falling star. “You never know when it’s going to fall.”
“My characters speak to me all the time,” added the author. “They appear and they tell me ‘This is what I want you to do.’ ”
Although Velásquez isn’t certain how many more Roosevelt High School books she’ll write, she has plans for a novel called “Dear Ms. Martínez” that would feature letters written by her now college-age characters to their old counselor. “That’s a way to keep my readers up on their lives,” she said.
Velásquez also wants to return to her first love, poetry, and work on a pair of autobiographies — one for teens, the other for adults.
“I’ve never written a story of my life and I’d like to do it before I forget it,” she said with a laugh.
Gloria Velásquez will sign copies of her book “Tommy Stands Tall” from 2 to 3 p.m. Saturday at Barnes and Noble, 894 Marsh St. in San Luis Obispo. For more information, visit http://gloriavelasquez.com.